Actiontec Plantium Series 54 Mbps Wireless Access Point

By Joseph Moran

September 23, 2003

This not-ready-for-prime-time access point needs a few revisions before its worth of major consideration as a purchase for a home wireless LAN.


Model: none
Price: $129.95
Features
Performance
Pros: Good g-only mode throughput
Cons: Currently lacks WPA support; driver and firmware upgrades can be confusing

The $129.95 Actiontec Platinum Series Access Point is a low-slung 802.11g unit in an almost weightless grey plastic chassis. One tongue depressor-style 2 dB antenna extends from each end of the unit. They swivel 180 degrees on their axis, but they can't be tilted away from the access point and they can't be removed. Actiontec includes a crossover cable, which is good because the Ethernet port isn't auto sensing.

Physically setting up the Actiontec was a non-event, but my time with the unit nevertheless began somewhat inauspiciously. This is because the printed Quick Start Guide, while listing the unit's default IP address, conspicuously omitted the default logon and credentials, which forced me to consult the online PDF manual. (Actiontec says this oversight will be remedied in future versions of the guide.)

I checked the manual to glean this logon information and found it listed there, but the username and password provided were rejected by the device. After several minutes spent sanity-checking and finally a reset to factory settings, Actiontec pointed out that the both the username and password were in fact case-sensitive and first-letter capitalized. Cheers to Actiontec for following best security practices by making the credentials case-sensitive (which provides a degree of additional security), but jeers to me for not noticing the capital "A" in the manual (though I probably won't be the only one to make this mistake.)

Owing to its emphasis on ease of use, the Actiontec for the most part sticks to basic features, and avoids more advanced ones (with one major exception I'll explain later) that might cause consternation amongst non-technical users--there is no bridging or repeating capability, and you can't adjust the transmit power to control your coverage area.

The good news is that the basic configuration of the Actiontec is for the most part reasonably straightforward, and you likely won't need to use the online help or documentation to get it going. The bad news is that if you do want online help, all you get at the Web site is this message: "This is where some helpful information will go. There is nothing here right now."

As expected, you can update the Actiontec's firmware via a Web browser. However, the firmware is identified by version number on the device and by date on the Web site, which made it essentially impossible to determine which was more current or whether an update was warranted. To make matters worse, the date on the site referred to when the software was posted, not the date it was released or approved for release. In fact, I wound up downloading and upgrading both the Actiontec access point and the Cardbus client adapter software, only to find out afterwards that both devices were already up-to-date.

Upon examining the Actiontec security features, I was surprised to find that it lacked WPA capability. It will be available via firmware upgrade sometime in October of 2003, at which time the product will be eligible for Wi-Fi certification. In the meantime, authentication can be done via MAC filtering (up to 16 authorized addresses can be entered). One of the items under "advanced" is the relatively unique ability to put a cap on the number of wireless stations that can be associated to the access point. The default is 250. Unfortunately, there is no 802.1x support included.

The Actiontec has a "visibility status" feature, which most products refer to as the SSID broadcast. The feature description says that setting it to "invisible" will let the access point be "protected against discovery by wireless sniffers", which isn't really true. While disabling the SSID broadcast will require users to know the SSID in order to associate, it will not obscure the existence of the network from a sniffer, which can glean the SSID from a variety of other WLAN management frames.

Both the Actiontec access point and client adapter came with an Actiontec-developed bundled piece of software called KidDefender. I didn't spend much time with it since it's not a WLAN-specific application, but it's apparently designed to give parents the ability to monitor and control (and immediately terminate, if warranted) a child's use of a variety of Internet applications, including the Web browser, newsgroups, chat rooms, and instant messaging clients. It's a subscription-based product that costs $39.95 for one year, and it may be a selling point if this is a major concern in your home.

The throughput performance of the Actiontec was strong, at least in native-mode, and it remained so throughout the distance range. It posted a high throughput figure of 22.03 Mbps at 10 feet, a figure that dwindled by roughly half that at 125 feet.

When the unit was switched to mixed mode, and had an 802.11b client associated to it, the throughput of a single 11g client fell to 14.08 Mbps, reflecting the impact of protection for the 802.11b client.

However, when the 11b client was configured to transmit concurrently with the 11g client during the test, the aggregate throughput plummeted down to a dismal 1.32 Mbps, with the 11g client eking out only slightly more of the meager bandwidth available (.75 Mbps, compared to .58 for the 11b client). This phenomenon repeated itself multiple times across various settings. It also continued to occur with a second Actiontec access point and client card provided for testing. I also substituted a client card from another vendor (and not Intersil-based), but the behavior persisted.

Strangely, reversing the direction of the test (initiating the data transfer on the WLAN side up to the LAN client) produced results more consistent with expectations--a total of 8.85 Mbps throughput, with 6.99 Mbps going to the 11g client and 1.90 going to the 11b client. Of course, this doesn't reflect the direction that most data gets transferred in a typical real-world environment.

As of the time of this writing, Actiontec technical support wasn't able to reproduce or explain my results. However, the fact that other products similarly tested before and since have not exhibited this problem at least suggests the possibility that this version of the Actiontec may have difficulty with mixed-mode throughput downstream to wireless clients.

The one exception to the basic features I mentioned earlier is the way the Actiontec implements the "Nitro" frame-bursting feature of the Intersil chipset (sorry, GlobespanVirata chipset). Rather than enabling the user to simply turn it on and off, Actiontec presents it as a setting called "Maximum Burst Time" with a numerical value expressed in microseconds. "The default setting is 0, a.k.a. "off".

Implementing the feature in this way for a product aiming for simplicity is a needlessly confusing approach. The feature description offers 1000 as a "typical" value, but aside from that there is no discussion about what values are appropriate for particular usage scenarios. It would have been preferable if Actiontec simply allowed the feature to be turned on and off, and set to an appropriate general-purpose value.

I did some ad-hoc testing with values arbitrarily chosen at 1000, 3000, and 5000 microseconds. The feature didn't have much of an effect except in the mixed client scenario, where a setting of 3000 improved aggregate throughput to a still low 4.15 Mbps (3.7 of that for the 11g client) and seemed to represent the point of diminishing returns.

The Actiontec Platinum Series 54 Mbps Wireless Access Point has potential and the native 11g-only mode throughput is quite good. On the other hand, it needs improvement to be a real contender, and unless your requirements are very basic, it would probably be best to let this product mature before considering a purchase.

Shortcomings including the current lack of WPA, confusing driver and firmware upgrade identification, and the nebulous Nitro configuration conspire to undermine the usefulness of the product. The mixed mode performance anomaly is also of concern, though it may not be a consideration if you're only planning to use only 802.11g clients.

After a firmware revision or two, the Actiontec may be a more compelling product, but right now and at this price point, there are several access points available with more features and greater polish than the Actiontec currently provides.



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